Ordinary People -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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The dehumanizing effect of war on man is a well-mined subject onscreen, and for obvious reasons it remains an almost universally relevant one. In his feature-length debut, "Ordinary People" (part of the Critics' Week selection at Cannes), Serbian filmmaker Vladimir Perisic tackles the subject with moderately compelling results, delivering a poignant film that nevertheless falls short of its intended impact.

Strong critical word-of-mouth could generate interest in foreign film markets, though a slow-moving, mostly wordless Serbian-language war drama could be a hard commercial sell. The movie, which portrays a soldier's initiation into the cruel ritual of military killing, would be a fitting entry in politically themed festivals.

"Ordinary People" follows Dzoni (Relja Popovic), a 20-year-old soldier in an unspecified war meant to evoke the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. The film opens as Dzoni and comrades travel by bus to an abandoned farm, where they must stand by for further orders in a cryptic response to recent terrorist attacks. These scenes make purposeful use of long takes, conveying the soldiers' dread-infused, sun-baked boredom as they wait for news of their mission.

This section also wisely zeroes in on the protagonist, giving us an empathetic center that prevents the movie from becoming a cold exercise in realism. Dzoni is supposed to be a recent recruit, and his fumbling manner in early scenes suggests discomfort with the unflinching brutality expected of him. Perisic films his lead's boyish face (think a post-adolescent, Eastern European Matt Damon) up close, capturing currents of anxiety beneath the stoicism.

The turning point comes when a bus pulls up to the farm, unloading groups of men who, as the commander explains, are the enemy and must be killed. Dzoni, along with the other soldiers, is asked to shoot the suspects -- something he does haltingly at first, then with increasing efficiency. In Dzoni's transition from nervous novice to trained killer, "Ordinary People" suggests an unsettling parallel between acclimatization to violence and learning the mechanics of a new job; Perisic's methodically naturalistic visual approach reflects the implication that Dzoni is essentially completing a task put before him -- that this task is taking human lives defines the ugly nature of war.

Perisic hints at the psychological toll of these acts through a repeated shot of Dzoni staring at his hands, followed by a close-up of the hands themselves, summing up the character's disbelief at how quickly and capably he has learned to kill.

If "Ordinary People" is less than a knockout, it's due to a certain familiarity around the film's edges. Though thoughtfully handled and packaged, the ideas explored here are hardly uncharted territory. And while Perisic proves a poised and precise crafter of images, he relies a bit too heavily on European art-cinema tropes (long takes, static nature shots, sparse dialogue) and a languorous rhythm that makes a compact 80 minutes feel occasionally ponderous.

The supporting cast consists of a handful of taciturn soldiers and a growling unit chief, while lead actor Popovic anchors the film convincingly.

Opens: Cannes Critics' Week
Production: TS Prods
Cast: Relja Popovic, Boris Isakovic, Miroslav Stevanovic
Director: Vladimir Perisic
Screenwriter: Vladimir Perisic, Alice Winocour
Producer: Anthony Doncque, Pierre-Alain Meier, Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto
Director of photography: Simon Beaufils
Production designer: Diana Radosavljevic
Editor: Martial Salomon
No rating, 80 minutes